We used to own a 2002 Jeep Grand Cherokee right up till last year. Despite what hype you may hear, the Grand Cherokee has never been a Range Rover rival; more entry-level luxury rather than premium luxury. But the real reason we bought one back then was because it was the cheapest way to get behind the wheel of a midsize SUV with a big V8 under the bonnet. The latest Grand Cherokee still offers the same formula for those who prefer it, with a little more premium gadgetry now thrown in.
The launch of the 2014 Grand Cherokee started off from the Dubai showroom with a drive towards the Al Maha Desert Resort. Lined up were the top-spec Overland and Summit models, both powered by a 360 hp 5.7-litre V8 mated to an all-new 8-speed automatic. The 290 hp 3.6-litre V6, also with the 8-speed, is only available on the lower-spec models. The 2014 models, including the basic Laredo and mid-range Limited versions, all feature LED-tube running lamps in the reshaped HID headlights, a redone rear-end, new wheel designs and several variations of the front bumper, depending on the trim level. For example, the Overland is identified by its extra chrome on the stock front bumper, while the new Summit model gets an SRT-style front bumper. Both also ride on 20-inch alloys and come with adaptive height-adjustable air suspension.
We set off in an Overland, a version so loaded that you wonder what more the Summit could offer. The Overland gets a stitched-leather dashboard and upper-door trim, real wood, powered cooled seats, panoramic glass roof and the new 8.4-inch multimedia touchscreen with Garmin navigation. The amount of premium cabin trim matches that of a VW Touareg, but not quite that of a BMW X5 or a Range Rover Sport, by virtue of more hard-plastic use in lower areas.
The refinement could best be described as “good enough” for an entry-level luxury vehicle. Power delivery on acceleration is linear and smooth rather than strong and abrupt, though there is always enough juice. Wind rush and road noise are mildly noticeable but never intrusive, while the ride is largely smooth with a slight hint of truck-like jiggle felt on certain surfaces. The steering is on the firm side and offers limited feel, while the brakes are pretty decent and linear. In short, it feels a lot like the pre-facelift Overland we drove in 2011.
We hit the gravel trails after lunch, right through some mountains, driving a Limited with 18-inch wheels. The most visible differences it had inside were a smaller touchscreen with no navigation, rubberised dash instead of leather-stitching, and slightly fewer gadgetry. Some of the terrain was pretty aggressive, with sharp drops and what not, but it was all pretty easy to manage, especially since the electronic suspension was set high and the lower part of the front bumper was easily removed before our trip.
The Jeep people even set up a little rocky course somewhere in the hills, to demonstrate their new hill-descent feature that can also do ascents. We didn’t take it too seriously, until we were able to manage the entire course without even touching the pedals, letting the car do all the low-speed throttle inputs and soft braking to take the Jeep down and up the steep rock surfaces, sometimes with one tyre in the air, sometimes scraping the rear bumper due to the tight angles, and sometimes even recovering by itself when the car starts slipping sideways down a rock surface! All we did was steer. This unique feature is only available on some trim levels, and it’s pretty darn amazing.
After an overnight stay at the resort, we went for a desert drive in a convoy early in the morning to beat the heat. The lower half of the front bumper still off, suspension raised up, tyres deflated, and the terrain-management system set to “Sand”, we drove on the soft sand dunes inside the conservation reserve surrounding the resort. We were again driving a limited with the 18-inchers, so the tyres were better suited for sand. Others in the convoy had 20-inch wheels and they seemed to be managing fine, aside from one or two who kept getting stuck due to lack of momentum, or possibly skill. None of them needed to be towed out.
The Jeep can manage the sand just fine with a V6, but a V8 in the desert is never a bad thing. The current Grand Cherokee is a pretty heavy car, and that weight can be felt, especially since you have to give it a bit more throttle input to overcome the street-biased tyres. It can feel like it’s bogging down occasionally, as the traction control cannot be fully defeated in 4-high mode, but pressing the accelerator a centimetre more made sure we kept moving, with a flurry of sand in our wake. It’s easy to control the gears too, with the new paddle-shifters, so you don’t have to mess with the stubby new electronic shifter.
Ground clearance is more than enough with the raised suspension and the half-removed bumper, so we never hit anything even when certain downward slopes ended with an abrupt flat area just a few metres below a sharp crest. At one point, my driving partner managed to get fully bogged down on an uphill dune. I just told him to stop spinning the tyres, back down in 4-low, and try again with more speed, which he successfully did. It’s all about basic technique. With that V8, you can power out of most situations with the right throttle input.
The Grand Cherokee remains at the top of its game. What little it lacks in refinement, it more than makes up for in proper offroad capability, something that is becoming increasingly rare among midsize SUVs. With that V8 under the bonnet, it pretty much has no rivals in its price range that can do as much as the Jeep can. And for that, it remains a favourite in our minds.